With a meager 420 career snaps to his name, Bears’ defensive tackle Nate Collins is the definition of a secret superstar. An All-ACC defensive lineman as a senior, Collins went undrafted out of Virginia in 2010. He initially signed with the Giants and was released before he even got to play a snap. The Jaguars signed him and in 2011 he appeared in 12 games, but played just 173 snaps.
Unfortunately for many teams (and fortunately for others) Collins’ story is not uncommon in the NFL. Many players have bounced around, released by teams who either don’t see the talent or find the player doesn’t fit in the scheme. The Bears are sure glad they found him though, as his +4.9 grade this season made him one of the most impressive backups in the NFL. Due to his elite production at times and his overlooked status (even by his own coaching staff at times) Collins is the undisputed pick as the Bears’ Secret Superstar.
Coming Out Party
It took Collins eight weeks to see the field, but he wasted no time once he got there. On his very first snap of the season he picked up a +1.5 graded pressure as he was in quarterback Cam Newton’s face before he could even plant on his seven-step drop. The move he used was a simple club-swim combination that allowed him a free run past Panther left guard Amini Silatolu. Later in the game Collins would use the exact same move to pick up a second pressure, this time on right guard Jeff Byers.
The running game, however, is where Collins really made his presence felt, even if it was against the Panthers. He graded positively on seven running plays and negatively on just one. His main targets that game, center Geoff Hangartner and guard Silatolu, were some of the worst interior lineman in the NFL last season, but Collins still made quick work of them and was utterly dominant all game. He showed great lower body strength and was able to consistently push linemen into the offense’s backfield. At the end of the day, his final grade was +5.4 in just 35 snaps. Only 13 other defensive tackles had a game with a grade of +5.0 or higher in 2012, and no one did it in as few snaps.
Coming Back to Earth
Collins would grade slightly positively the next two weeks against Tennessee and Houston. Then he would come up against the vaunted interior O-Line of San Francisco, where he began to show some holes in his game. Against the Panthers, Collins relied on his strength to affect the running game. He did not have that same strength advantage against the 49ers and it exposed one of his biggest weaknesses, his inability to disengage from blocks. On multiple occasions Collins would get locked in with a blocker and then be unable to shed him as the ballcarrier scampered past. He finished the game with a grade of -3.2 on 26 snaps for his worst grade of the season.
The rest of the season Collins was solid in his backup duty. Over the last six games his overall grade was +2.2, but he never really saw his playing time increase. Over that same period he averaged only 24 snaps a game before being a healthy scratch in Week 17. It should be a little concerning moving forward that despite his solid play, his snap counts decreased toward the end of the season (20 snaps total in Weeks 15-17).
Phil Emery liked enough of what he saw in Collins to re-sign him this offseason. The Bears may not have had any competition for his services, however. He did come back for the fourth-year league minimum of $715k. For a more than serviceable backup with starter ability, the Bears got a steal.
Looking at the Bears’ current roster it isn’t too crazy to think that Collins could be elevated to a starter at some point in 2013, or at least see a major uptick in snaps. The departures of Israel Idonije and Amobi Okoye make it mainly a competition between Collins and Stephen Paea for the spot opposite Henry Melton. Even though Paea was a second-round pick, he hasn’t produced at a high level. Collins outdid Paea in both Pass Rushing Productivity (6.5 – 5.0) and Run Stop Percentage (5.7 – 5.1) last season. We won’t try to predict who is going to come out on top, but we are excited to see how Collins produces next year in a hopefully expanded role.